Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

It's time for a rethink on the Ioane kid

Rieko may yet beat older brother to the black jerse.
Akira Ioane. Photo / Rod Emmerson.
Akira Ioane. Photo / Rod Emmerson.

It's a certainty, or as good as, that both the Ioane boys, Akira and Rieko, will play for the All Blacks at some stage.

For much of the past 12 months, few would have bet against Akira being the first. Older by two years and having blasted into Super Rugby last year with the sort of solo try no one could ever forget, he enhanced his standing further in January with a commanding performance at the Wellington Sevens.

But in the past month or so, Rieko has forced a rethink. Maybe he will make it to the national team first.

The younger Ioane brother recently turned 19 and yet has delivered the most remarkably composed and mature performances on the right wing and will tonight play his fourth game for the Blues franchise against the Sharks at Eden Park.

He's been one of the team's best performers in recent weeks and more than held his own against the high-flying Chiefs in Hamilton. If ever there was a night someone so young and inexperienced could be exposed, it would have been last Friday.

The pace of the game was relentless. The movement from the Chiefs was, at times, fluid and sweeping and with that they pulled and twisted the Blues' defence. But as good as the Chiefs were in patches, they couldn't sucker the younger Ioane into any major schoolboy errors.

They couldn't isolate him or rattle him and instead, Ioane was one of many who did their bit in a near heroic scrambling defensive effort.

And when his chance came to show what he could do with the ball - there was equally no sign of fluster or anxiousness. He coasted smoothly into action, using his agility and size to find space and force the Chiefs to man the widest parts of the field.

"He is an exceptional talent and I think we have seen that in the last few weeks," says Blues coach Tana Umaga. "We have put him on the wing and we are trying to get him the ball and I don't think you have to say much ... just watch.

"And he's a very good kid off the field. He's very diligent about what he wants to do and he's professional. It's disappointing that we are going to lose him to sevens soon."

Umaga's praise carries equal elements of relief, surprise and genuine admiration. Ioane was signed by Umaga's predecessor, John Kirwan, and the situation was a bit irregular.

Ioane was still at school, about to play in the 1A final for Auckland Grammar. But the Blues had no choice - if they hadn't offered a full contract, the Chiefs would have and yet another supremely gifted young man would have escaped.

It was still a huge risk, though, signing a 17-year-old on the basis he was tearing up the schoolboy game. The decision has proven to be justified and so too Kirwan's assertion in February 2015 that Ioane reminded him of Sonny Bill Williams.

"He's big, strong and fast. He's tall and a good athlete," said Kirwan after Ioane was one of the stars of the Wellington Sevens. "He can step off both feet and has a good fend. He's in that Israel Folau, Sonny Bill Williams sort of mould."

Because both Ioane boys are having a crack at Rio, neither will be considered for All Blacks duty until, most likely, the end of season tour when 34 players will be picked to play Ireland, France and Italy.

Akira is precisely the sort of athlete All Blacks coach Steve Hansen likes. He's tall enough to win lineout ball, fast enough to cause problems in the open field and explosive and bruising in the tight exchanges. The question selectors will most likely have about the older brother is whether he works hard enough off the ball. Test football for loose forwards is not an opt-in, opt-out arrangement where someone can hide after a few strong carries.

By September this year, Rieko may have moved closer to persuading the All Blacks selectors that he's better equipped - or at least better prepared - to tour with the national side.

The All Blacks have exciting wing options in Nehe Milner-Skudder, Julian Savea and Waisake Naholo, but they need more because two of those three are injured and the other is only just getting himself into the right physical shape.

At 1.91m and 104kg, Rieko has the size, pace and skills and he may be picked on the basis that as he builds his experience, he's going to go past the likes of James Lowe, Patrick Osborne and Cory Jane.

- NZ Herald

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